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Are "Round Pegs in Square Holes" Costing our Government Billions?

Appian Contributor
September 24, 2012

Is the Federal Government trying to put round pegs in square holes? That certainly seems to be the case with the acquisition and contract writing systems they are buying.

Here's what brought this analogy to my head. I just finished taping an interview with Chris Dorobek of the DorobekINSIDER on about my newest white paper titled, "What Federal Acquisition Professionals Need to Know About the New IT Landscape." I wrote this paper because it's become clear that acquisition professionals don't understand there is a new generation of technology available for acquisition and contract writing systems. My paper explains the new technology and provides guidance on how to structure an evaluation process to include options using this technology.

At one point in the interview, Chris asked why I thought government agencies continually buy software that doesn't fit their needs well. The answer is that they have been making the best choice they can, but options that can really fit the individual needs of each agency haven't existed before. New technology allows for cost-effective, ideal fit systems. In that light, agencies that still purchase commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) or government off-the-shelf (GOTS) acquisition and contract writing systems need to recognize they are no longer choosing the best solution. Instead, continuing to buy COTS/GOTS software is the equivalent of forcing round pegs into square holes.

The result of this action isn't pretty. At the surface, you have government agencies with poorly performing software. This leads contracting officers to have to use manual approaches and work outside the application to get specific acquisition steps done. Can't the software be customized to fit their needs? Of course it can. Software vendors creating COTS products will never turn down customization requests, they will just price them extremely high. A recent survey I sent out to a diverse set of Federal acquisition professionals showed that sixty percent had requested changes to their acquisition software, only to decide against doing them when they got the cost estimate, meaning they surrendered to a state where they use software that doesn't fit their needs. Seventy-two percent of survey respondents said their organizations would be significantly more productive if they could modify their acquisition software at low or no cost.

Software that doesn't perform well causes work inefficiencies and ultimately has a short operating life. These COTS applications are not cheap. Combine their cost with impaired contracting officer efficiency and you have millions of dollars wasted. But the costs of continuing to rely on inferior technology runs into the billions when you step back and recognize that problems with an acquisition system can lead to poor acquisition outcomes and higher prices for the government. With the volume the Federal government buys, and some of the multi-billion dollar systems it purchases, the acquisition process gaps stemming from poor fitting IT systems ("round pegs in square holes") can lead to unthorough processes and a failure to attract the maximum number of bidders possible. The result is billions of tax payer dollars wasted.

Let's stop letting our money be used to buy IT systems that are "round pegs in square holes." And it's not as simple as just finding square pegs for square holes. The shape of the holes will change over time as needs change, agency missions evolve, and new FAR regulations are released. Now that new options exist, there is no excuse for government agencies to not have IT systems that can be easily and inexpensively adjusted as their needs change over time.

To learn more about the new technology available for acquisition and contract writing systems, please download my new white paper, "What Federal Acquisition Professionals Need to Know About the New IT Landscape."

Evan McDonnell

Vice President of Solutions

Evan McDonnell